Comedian makes his Grand Ole Opry instrumental debut

Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 1:00am
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Funny man Steve Martin will take the stage Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry not as a comedian, but as a bango player flanked by some of bluegrass' biggest stars.

There are plenty of actors and comedians who are also skilled musicians, but there are even more with minimal or no skills and training that embarrass themselves when they enter the performing or recording arena.

But while Steve Martin’s comic exploits are well known through many years of films and television, he’s also been playing the banjo since he was 17 years old. Though early in his career he often used the instrument as a performing prop in his stand-up act, Martin’s actually an accomplished player and soloist who earned a Grammy award in 2002 after teaming with the great Earl Scruggs on an updated version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the disc Earl Scruggs and Friends.

Saturday night, Martin makes his Grand Ole Opry debut, an event that has gotten enormous attention across the country, bluegrass, folk, Americana and acoustic music communities. He’s been getting ready for it with a whirlwind number of appearances, including American Idol last week and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Martin’s new, mostly instrumental CD The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo (Rounder) was just released Tuesday, and it bears the production stamp of master picker John McEuen, a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as well as a longtime friend of Martin’s.

“This will be a lifelong memory highpoint — one of just how far a dream can go,” McEuen said in a press release. “Two kids from Orange Country at the Opry! Well, when Steve picks, fans will see how much it means to him to bring his music to the heart of country music. The audience will find out he’s a musician disguised as an actor.”

Martin and McEuen’s personal and professional friendship dates back to their teen years in California, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band actually backed Martin on a 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live. But that time, they called themselves the Toots Uncommons and supported Martin as he performed his oddball number “King Tut.” That won’t be the setting for his Opry date.

Martin’s own thoughts about the new disc are typically low-key and self-effacing.

“I thought if I don’t do it now, my fingers might slow down and I might forget these songs,” he said in a recent article.

The disc not only has 15 original tunes, it includes a 24-page booklet with Martin discussing the inspirations behind each number.

He’s playing with a host of country greats, among them Vince Gill and Amy Grant, McEuen, Stuart Duncan and Tim O’Brien, all of whom are joining him on the Opry stage. Dolly Parton, Mary Black, Earl Scruggs, Pete Wernick and Tony Trischka are the others participating in the recording, which was done at studios in Dublin, Hollywood, Nashville and New Jersey.

Besides the occasional vocals contributed by Parton, O’Brien and Gill, Martin even takes the microphone on “Late For School,” the one cut that qualifies as comedic. Otherwise, this is a serious and extensive set characterized by impressive solos, intricate playing, frequently dazzling exchanges, harmonies and counterpoint, and relaxed, yet solid and outstanding arrangements and melodic exposition.

Those who doubt Martin can execute anything of difficulty on the banjo need only consult several videos currently available on You Tube. There are two versions of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with Scruggs, both of them showing an energized and engaged Martin sometimes responding and other times offering his own licks and exchanges to Scruggs’ robust playing.

The other Martin video features a version of “The Crow” that was released on the CD Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular that featured Martin playing alongside Tony Trischka and Bela Fleck. Once more, Martin certainly holds his own with magnificent players, though he’s not quite as fast or imaginative as Fleck and Trischka, who have both done their share of avant-garde and outside jazz along with bluegrass and country music.

The multi-instrumental maestro David Amram, who’s done everything from conduct symphony orchestras to jam with Cuban musicians and record with jazz greats on both the East and West coasts, also participated in the session. Amram said that it was “45 years in the making,” a reference to the fact that Martin’s had the idea for this type of recording for decades, but had never been able to get everyone together or get all the music in order.

Martin’s talents also extend into the field of writing. He’s done several pieces over the years in The New Yorker and before he rocketed to fame in such films as The Jerk and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, he won an Emmy award as a writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Martin’s gone on to guest host some 15 times on Saturday Night Live, served as Oscar host twice, and won Grammy awards for his comedy albums.

Now, his banjo expertise will be on display as he teams with many of the world’s finest acoustic musicians on the Grand Ole Opry Saturday night.


What: Steve Martin’s Grand Ole Opry debut
When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Grand Ole Opry House, 2804 Opryland Drive
Cost: $36 (standing room)-$53
Info: opry.com, 871-OPRY (6779)